Commentary Magazine


The Voice that is Great Within Us, edited by Hayden Carruth

Poetry Collecting

The Voice That Is Great Within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century.
by Hayden Carruth.
Bantam Books. 722 pp. $1.95.

Anthologizing is a luckless game, and one to be avoided by all men blessed with sanity and precarious good taste. Nothing, at any rate, exposes bad taste quite so tellingly as an editorial mistake in the relative emphasis (six pages of Durrell against only two of Graves?) or selection of poets for an anthology. Oscar Williams never recovered from a polite observation made by Randall Jarrell: “The book has the merit of containing a larger selection of Oscar Williams’s poems than I have ever seen in any other anthology. There are nine of his poems-and five of Hardy’s.” Recently there appeared a strange little production, one of those heroic and immodest efforts to condense the history of English poetry “from its beginnings.” Specific choices had been authorized by the late Yvor Winters, and the book brought out posthumously by one of his students; naturally, Gerard Manley Hopkins (long ago excommunicated from this church) was nowhere to be found, while Donne appeared in a minor role compared to Winters himself. Such extreme instances can be a source of limited amusement—or they can remind us that an editor, however circumspect he may want to be, is making his own critical statement.

Mr. Carruth, for his part, seems a little confused about the nature of the task at hand. In one sense he has put together a strictly personal book, “what one moderately experienced and immoderately diligent reader has selected during two and a half years of reading.” Yet his book will not disclaim a somewhat broader intent, that of embodying “the ‘canon’ of modern American poetry as viewed from the present.” Carruth recognizes how far these two purposes may be at odds, and in a protective clause he allows that “of course, I have failed”; which pretty effectively steals a critic’s fire. At all events, some of the more discerning readers of this anthology will remark its failure to include Mark Strand, John Hollander, Howard Nemerov, and Alan Dugan—among others—in a structure roomy enough to accommodate Kenneths Patchen, Fearing, and Rexroth, along with Goodmans Paul and Mitchell (the last hitherto unpublished as a poet). In the interest of being representative (his second goal), Carruth has thought to provide space for “a few poets [who] have produced work which, taken as a whole, is repugnant to my taste.” This was probably not a good thing to do: the readers who would feel deprived by a more discriminating editorial judgment are an anonymous group, which is to say a nonexistent one. Did the editor put himself through those two years of work only to reprint poets he doesn’t really like?

LeRoi Jones is here, as well as Diane Wakowski, a strident Californian who suffers from a disease known as “deep imagism”:

George Washington, your name
    is on my lips.
You had a lot of slaves.
I don’t like the idea of slaves.
    I know I am
a slave to
too many masters, already
a red cardinal flies out of the
    pine tree in my eye swooping
down to crack a nut and the bird
    feeds on a tray draped with
a thirteen-starred flag
.

Well, deep imagism, there you are. From Salvador Dali Miss Wakowski has learned the useful art of fakery, although it must be added that her nightmares lack that thrillingly gross gaucherie which is the saving grace of Dali. As for LeRoi Jones, the editor has neglected to print the anti-Semitic poems that stand as the true culmination of his oeuvre. (The interested reader is hereby urged to consult a preface to Black Magic Poetry, wherein is set forth Jones’s conversion from white-inspired pessimism to pure black art, “the strengthening to destroy.”) Such are the pitfalls of selecting poets to fit some undefined index of “current taste”—assuming that the special repugnancies of this editor coincide with my own.

But that is only one kind of shortcoming. On the other side, acting as a private anthologist and so a deliberately idiosyncratic one, Carruth has some equally disturbing lapses. Mitchell Goodman may be a friend of the family, but he is hardly so exciting as to have earned his place here; if Carruth was out to expose relatively unknown talent, he might have tried Alvin Feinman, who was “discovered” by John Hollander in his recent anthology, Poems of Our Moment, and whose “Landscape (Sicily)” is the best poem of its kind since Hart Crane:

I have seen your steeples and
    your lands
Speared by awkward cactuses and
    long birds
Flatten your yellow stones, your
    worn mountains.

Surely where those hills spilled
    villages
Toward the sea I should have
    wanted
Savagery, a touch icier than phys
    ical sport . . .

Instead, Carruth has given us someone named Mina Loy—one of the original Imagists (alas!) whom Ezra Pound took a liking to, now lost to fame—on the ground that she has lately been “rediscovered by the younger generation of American poets.” Mina Loy wrote “Onyx-eyed Odalisques/ and ornithologists/ observe/ the flight/ of Eros obsolete,” and the like. Carruth is wilfully cute, too, about his own body of work, showing off only a few unambitious gems culled from the margins of his editorial chore—such as “Why speak of the use/ of poetry? Poetry/ is what uses us,” which sounds untrue, whatever it may mean. But he did introduce me to one unfamiliar author whom I want to read more of: Charles Reznikoff. an “objectivist” poet associated with William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky, who wrote quiet, almost skeletal lyrics about God, Jewishness, and the New York urban pastoral. And that is, after all, the one success any anthologist hopes for.

_____________

 

On the more standard anthology figures, Carruth has made choices that are almost always original and very often right. True, when we find that his un-orthodoxy has seen fit to include John Crowe Ransom’s “Survey of Literature” rather than, say, “Captain Carpenter”—when we come across the couplet “Then there was poor Willie Blake,/ He foundered on sweet cake,” which Jarrell (again) called “so queer a judgment, about a poet whose favorite word was howl, that one decides it is not a judgment but a rhyme”—we can’t help wishing this originality out of sight, and longing for the dear old days of Oscar Williams and Louis Untermeyer. And in the selection from Jarrell himself it seems a pity to have forgotten “Losses,” although “Well Water,” which is reprinted by Carruth, illustrates the later development of Jarrell in the clearest possible terms—something other anthologists had never managed to do:

What a girl called “the dailiness
    of life”
Adding an errand to your er-
    rand. Saying, ”
Since you’re up . . .” Making
    you a means to
A means to a means to) is well
    water
Pumped from an old well at the
    bottom of the world.
The pump you pump the water
    from is rusty
And hard to move and absurd, a
    squirrel-wheel
A sick squirrel turns slowly,
    through the sunny
Inexorable hours. And yet some-
    times
The wheel turns of its own
    weight, the rusty
Pump pumps over your sweating
    face the clear
Water, cold, so cold! you cup
    your hands
And gulp from them the dailiness
    of life
.

This sort of colloquial syntax may look quite as artificial as the formalism practiced by Winters: “The pump you pump the water from,” “the rusty/ Pump pumps,” and so on. But it is deserving of the epithet “Wordsworthian,” and not merely in the bathetic sense; only Jarrell could have noticed “the sunny/ Inexorable hours” that bring out with such purity his theme of toil and happiness, and make a condescending view of the poem the real stock response.

In general, Carruth has sought to trace the movement of well-established poets out of their early, “pressurized” verse to more pleasantly relaxed forms. Thus, in the case of Karl Shapiro, “Auto Wreck” is there, but so are the recent prose poems (although Carruth does not, to my mind, fix on the best of these); Theodore Roethke’s “Journey to the Interior” will be found alongside “My Papa’s Waltz”; and the later Berryman has been allowed to coexist with old stuff like “The Traveller.” Anthologists have until now been partial to the Robert Lowell of Lord Weary’s Castle, and here Carruth really has the courage of his conviction: “The Drunken Fisherman” is still around, but “The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket” has fallen by the wayside in favor of “Night Sweat” and “For George Santayana” (a characteristic if rather limp portrait). For such attentiveness poets are bound to show their gratitude, and indeed Lowell and Shapiro have supplied The Voice That Is Great Within Us with the needful encomia. And they are probably right, over all; The Voice That Is Great Within Us contains a great deal of poetry that is rich and strange and very American.

_____________

 

“America when will you be worthy of your twenty million Trotskyites?” So declared Allen Ginsberg, the most genuine and confused of our Whitmaniacs, in a poem unfortunately missing from this selection. Unfortunately because the real theme of this book is the spirit of America in American poetry, because Carruth reveals a national tendency in our poets that no amount of “confessional” art can obscure. Paul Goodman, for example, is surely the confessional poet par excellence, yet in a poem like “The Lordly Hudson” he is making a somewhat uncoordinated attempt to say “this is my land,” with the sentiments of Whitman in the style of Longfellow:

Driver, what stream is it?” I
    asked, well knowing,
it was our lordly Hudson hardly
    flowing,
It is our lordly Hudson hardly
    flowing
he said, “under the green grown
    cliffs
.”

* * *

Driver! has this a peer in Europe
    or the East?
“No no!” he said. Home! Home!
be quiet, heart! this is our lordly
    Hudson
and has no peer in Europe or the
    East . . .

Time passes, and his heart begins to tell him different things; but doesn’t the essential quality of his passion stay the same?

My countrymen have now be-
    come too base,
I give them up. I cannot speak
    with men
not my equals. I was an Ameri-
    can,
where now to drag my days out
    and erase
this awful memory of the United
    States?

Which is instructive in its way, however maudlin; poetry drawing on the spring of national feeling can compass nationalism and anti-nationalism equally; the perfect instance of this is Pound, much admired nowadays by poets who would consider themselves politically on the Left.

The Poundian influence has always been a mixed blessing, tending to produce a poetry cunningly frayed at the edges, agrammatical, full of brisk and studied enthusiasm—all consequences of what Dr. Leavis termed his “portentous established immaturity.” But there is also John Berryman, who I think has to be read as a disciple of Pound, although his Dream Songs will probably outlast Pound’s Cantos (by virtue of being more human). Here, though, we get caught up in that sort of poetry in which the self must be dominant, while history is felt as an external force impinging now and then by way of the daily papers. One of the chief worries of recent American poetry is to move out of this isolation, to find a manner of public speech that doesn’t grate on personal reflection.

_____________

 

The one poet whose private consciousness has never excluded a public voice is, of course, Robert Lowell; and in “Inauguration Day, 1953,” with its amazing modified sestet (“Ice, ice. Our wheels no longer move. . . .”), he wrote political poetry of force and an unexampled rigor. And Lowell has now become a regular observer of politics, albeit in a rather different spirit. His Notebooks bring together nearly as much work, quantitatively, as everything in his previous volumes, and the idea has something to do with laying bare the mind of the poet showing the process of raw creation at work under the assumption that it must be an interesting sight. To which the only answer may be: not always. Lowell has none of the brainlessness required to do good automatic writing, and none of the colloquial flippancy needed to write the poetry of daily themes; on the contrary, much of the material in Notebooks has about it the discarded and slightly garrulous wit that one normally associates with first drafts. The crossing of political with private aches must admit very strong odds, and the new poems are difficult going, partly because they abound in a sort of highclass gothic for which Lowell (unlike Berryman) does not have the right touch. Perhaps as a result of this strategy, Lowell is experiencing pretty severe diction problems—or so we may be inclined to think. “Orestes knew that Trojan chivalry was shit.” (I was working from the second edition of Notebooks, and it has been supplanted by a third interpolation—just now brought to my attention—from which this line, along with some other infelicities, has been dropped. In a special note, Lowell indicates that for the first two additions he treated the book “as if it were a manuscript.”)

The most prominent of the anti-war poets, Robert Bly, began by writing poetry about nature—which he is still doing, more or less sotto voce. Bly has written political poems which also seem to me to be good poems; but they are not in any sense ideological, not meant for the platform, as Brecht’s could be:

O Germany—
Hearing the speeches that
    ring from your house,
    one laughs.
But whoever sees you,
    Reaches for his knife
.

It is an odd pattern to observe: an artist such as Bly, who never took energy from the urban milieu, can write all he likes on political subjects without corrupting his art—the manifesto gets absorbed into the texture of his landscape. Our poets, even in what should be the opportune moment, can’t settle on an ideological posture, and this may not be altogether a loss; anyhow, they are in this respect considerably less uniform than the British poets of the 30′s.

Yet certain features of American poetry must seem terribly uniform to the foreigner: its abruptness and provinciality, its uncanny fondness for places. (Weldon Kees—an original and unremembered poet whom Carruth, to his credit, decided to resurrect—once wrote a hypnotic poem composed almost entirely of the names of cities.) Right now, our poetry looks to be involved in some sort of escape into simplicity: witness the title of another anthology, Naked Poetry. But we ought to be good-humored about this—“Naked Poetry forsooth!” as a fairly well-dressed reviewer averred. Times change, of course, and it is the poetry (also Poetry) that remains.

_____________

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